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Survival Skills: How to Make Smoke Signals

Updated on May 30, 2014

Survival Skills: How to Communicate with Smoke Signals

Sending smoke signals is a lost skill that can still have use in the modern world. Smoke signals call help if someone is lost after camping or hiking. The signals stand out from a traditional campfire because of the distinctive puffs of smoke. For those who believe in the Armageddon, smoke signals may be a useful skill for post-electricity era.

Sending puffs of smoke into the air is somewhat insignificant these days. Few people would pay any attention to random puffs of smoke. This is particularly true in dense, urban areas with smoke from chimneys and industry smokestacks mingling in the air. However, before modern modes of communication, smoke signals were one of the fastest ways to communicate over long distances. In the right circumstances, they could be seen over 400 miles and were used to send warnings or call for help.

The biggest drawbacks to smoke signals are that there is no universal language for them. Unlike some codes, such as Morse code, a language needs to be created between the different parties that are sending the message. That can work against a person in distress, but it can also work to a group’s advantage if warring parties can’t interpret the smoke signals. That being said, one puff of smoke generally draws attention to the signal, two puffs signal you are fine and three puffs call for help or send a warning.

smoke signals
smoke signals

These days, smoke signals are only useful in survival situations where a person needs to call for help. They may stand out from the average campfire because distinctive puffs of smoke are sent out, which a campfire will not do. In forested areas, forest rangers watch for signs of wildfire and pay attention to smoke in the woods. This can lead to a lost party being found faster than those without a fire or smoke signals. People that believe the end of the world is coming may also choose to learn smoke signals and develop a language with their family and friends as a precaution.

To send smoke signals, first start a strong fire in a high location. The ideal location is bare or has few trees and is the highest point in the area. This allows the smoke to rise unobstructed. If this is not possible, find the location that fits the requirements as best as possible.

Add damp materials to a strong fire, such as green leaves, fresh wood or damp wood. This causes the fire to smoke more.

smoke signals
smoke signals

Stretch a blanket over the fire so that it is high enough not to burn but low enough that the smoke collects under it. You’ll need a second person for this. However, if you are on your own, try tying the other end of the blanket to a tree or other solid structure.

Allow the smoke to accumulate under the blanket. Then, quickly pull back one side of the blanket to allow the smoke to puff out. Cover the fire immediately after releasing the smoke. If you let too much smoke through, you will get a stream of smoke instead of a puff. Allow more smoke to pool under the blanket and then pull the blanket aside again to allow another puff to form. Continue until you have sent your message.

To prevent wildfire, put the fire out completely with water and bury the ashes to suffocate any embers. However, if you are truly lost and not just trying to communicate, stay with your fire and continue to send signals. Allow the fire to die down between signals so it is easy to manage. You can always build it up later.



Back in the Day: 101 Things Everyone Used to Know How to Do; Michael Powell; pg 130

Timelines of History; DK Publishing; page 374


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    • Jangaplanet profile imageAUTHOR

      A James Di Rodi 

      7 years ago

      Hi unvrso. It is a very sad story indeed. One important survival skill is knowing how to light a fire (amongst many others). I also think we rely to much on technology when we venture out for some fun, but we also have good reason to do so: it helps us get things done easier, safer and faster. But we should also learn basic survival skills without the technology. We sometimes won't think of it, because we carry mobile phones now, lighters in our pockets and so forth. We should learn some simple basics and be prepared in case disaster strikes. Thank you so much for stopping by and the vote, I appreciate it.

    • unvrso profile image

      Jose Juan Gutierrez 

      7 years ago from Mexico City

      Useful tips! I knew of two guys who got lost in the mountains while camping. This was an excursion to an ice-covered mountain. They got lost in the middle of a fog bank. When the fog bank got cleared up, they didn't know the way back, and for the lack of survival skills they perished.

      Rescue personnel found their bodies weeks later. You provide a useful technique for those who need to be rescued. Voted useful!

    • Jangaplanet profile imageAUTHOR

      A James Di Rodi 

      7 years ago

      Hi GNelson, thank you. When used the right way, making smoke signals can be a fun way to learn something which can come in handy (hopefully not) if ever they find themselves in dangerous situations. It's really an interesting skill. :)

      Hi beccabit. Using a blanket is the best way. One puff means "Attention!" Two puffs means "All is well!" And three puffs means "Trouble!" In need of "Help! :)

    • Jangaplanet profile imageAUTHOR

      A James Di Rodi 

      7 years ago

      You are absolutely right rebeccamealey. It is always a good idea to be prepared for natural disasters or any other emergency/circumstance we happen to find ourselves in. It's always best to have a survival kit to help us be better prepared in emergencies. We can't always rely on technology. It's good to learn some basic survival skills. :)

    • Jangaplanet profile imageAUTHOR

      A James Di Rodi 

      7 years ago

      Thanks jpcmc. That so true! In emergency situations- survival instincts always kick in. I guess it's a common aspect in human beings. We end up using anything that is made available to us, both physical and mental. :)

    • Jangaplanet profile imageAUTHOR

      A James Di Rodi 

      7 years ago

      Hi christopheranton, Carring a lighter will definitely make it less complicated , in case we ever get lost or need help. I hope not! but you can even start one by rubbing sticks together with just a few pieces of wood or natural resources found around. But I would prefer the lighter also! :)

    • beccabit profile image


      7 years ago from Utah

      Great article. I love to learn about anything outdoors. The blanket is a new idea to me!

    • GNelson profile image


      7 years ago from Florida

      Last week we were burning a pile of brush. It was wet from a rain. Lots of smoke. We were talking about how to make smoke signals. Good hub!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I think basic survival skills should not be allowed to become a lost means for sure. Tonight we had a terrible storm, the first thing needed was light, so I stumbled and found candles and a lighter! I suppose it's all about being prepared. Thanks for a great Hub on this matter!

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 

      7 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      In emergency situations we use anything at our disposal to survive. Simple skills can mean life or death. This is an example of a simple yet effective way to communicate. Voted up!

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      I must remember to bring a lighter with me next time I venture into the woods. I hope I never need to use your very useful information.

    • Jangaplanet profile imageAUTHOR

      A James Di Rodi 

      7 years ago

      Hi Beth, it really is an effective and simple way to communicate a need for help, I agree. Smoke signals are one of the oldest forms still used today for visual communication over long distances. I say "still used today" because we can easily use our cell phones, but they simply aren't affective when there's no cell towers around. Thanks for stopping by, I appreciate it. :)

    • Beth100 profile image


      7 years ago from Canada

      A simple yet effective way to communicate a need for help. We should remember how simply life can be. :)


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